Debra Prinzing

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Episode 282: Got Peonies? News from the Alaska Peony Growers Association Conference

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017
A bridal bouquet featuring flowers from Alaska Peony Cooperative farms

A bridal bouquet featuring flowers from Alaska Peony Cooperative farms

Interior (Fairbanks), Central (Mat-Su Valley) and Homer (Kenai Peninsula)

Interior (Fairbanks), Central (Mat-Su Valley) and Homer (Kenai Peninsula)

If you’re as smitten with peonies as I am, this episode is just for you.

I’m delighted to share five short conversations with people involved in Alaska’s cut peony industry — all who attended the end-of-January Alaska Peony Growers Association winter conference in Fairbanks.

The conference invited me to speak to the 125-plus attendees about the Slow Flowers Movement and to share my insights and forecast about the American grown floral landscape. It was a great conference with so many passionate and motivated flower farmers, suppliers, educators and research experts.

This will be a longish episode, so to keep things moving along, I’ll introduce all seven guests to you now; and then each interview will flow from one to the next with a brief introduction.

In this order, you’ll meet:

Rita Jo Shoultz, a past Growers' Cup Winner from the Alaska Peony Growers Association, with some of her beauties.

Rita Jo Shoultz, a past Alaska Peony Growers Association “Growers’ Cup Winner,” with some of her field-grown varieties.

Rita Jo Schoultz, of Alaska Perfect Peony in Fritz Creek, Alaska, and the Alaska Peony Marketing Group in the Homer area. Alaska Perfect Peonies is a Slow Flowers member and Rita Jo and I serve together as members of the American Grown Counsel for Certified American Grown Brand.


Chris Beks, left, with his wife Elizabeth, and her parents Ron and Marji Illingworth, partners in North Pole Peonies + a view of their fields and a beautiful peony.

aapeonies_logoChris Beks, of North Pole Peonies in North Pole, Alaska, and Arctic Alaska Peonies Cooperative, a major sponsor for Slow Flowers, including this podcast. The photos above are from my 2012 visit to North Pole Peonies when I first met Chris and his family.

That experience included a fabulous farm tour and dinner at the home of his in-law’s, Marji and Ron Illingworth, early Alaska peony farmers.

(Left), Camden on peony planting day; (Right, from top), Kellly and Camden; winter at Wasilla Lights Farm

(Left), Camden on peony planting day; (Right, from top), Kelly and Camden; winter at Wasilla Lights Farm

Kelly Dellan of Wasilla Lights Farm, with her sunflower crop

Kelly Deller of Wasilla Lights Farm, with her sunflower crop

Mother-and-son team Kelly Deller and Camden Deller from Wasilla Lights Farm in Wasilla, Alaska, which is located in the Matanuska Valley in Central Alaska.

When I met them and found out that 15-year-old Camden was the force behind the farm’s peony venture, and that this was the third annual Alaska Peony Growers winter conference he’s attended, I knew I wanted to share his story with you.

There are a lot of inspiring young farmers, but not that many who started their career while still in middle school! Mom Kelly is to be congratulated for nurturing Camden’s passion. She wrote this on the farm’s web site: Our teenage son thought growing peonies was a must-do idea and never let go of the thought. It didn’t take too much convincing from him to start making plans for our own peony farm. Who knew I’d eventually be growing a field of these beauties?!

Lush pink buds from Alaska Peony Cooperative farms

Lush pink buds from Alaska Peony Cooperative farms

Farm views: left, top, bottom

Views from Alaska Peony Co-op member farms: left, Far North Peonies; top, Mt. McKinley Peonies; bottom, Giggly Roots Gardens

smAPC Logo 2Martha Lojewski and Maureen Horne-Brine of Alaska Peony Cooperative which includes farms in Matanuska, Susitna and Eagle River Valleys in Central Alaska.

Martha is the sales manager and also owns Mt. McKinley Peonies in Willow. Maureen handles social media for the co-op and owns Far North Peonies in Sunshine, Alaska.

Beth Van Sandt in her upper peony field at Scenic Place Peonies.

Beth Van Sandt in her upper peony field at Scenic Place Peonies.

and finally, my good friend Beth Van Sandt of Scenic Place Peonies in Homer, and the Alaska Peony Marketing Group. Scenic Place Peonies has been a member of Slow Flowers since we launched in May 2014.

Beth shares quite a bit of information about the upcoming events and activities that may lure you to Alaska at the end of July 2017. She and her husband Kurt Weichand are opening up their farm, Scenic Place Peonies, will play host to the first-ever Field to Vase Dinner held in Alaska on Saturday, July 29th.

F2VScenicAs you will hear us discuss, the amazing al fresco dinner will serve up delicious local seafood and all-local flowers, including peonies and you can find ticket details here.

Beth and I discuss several other bonus events taking place during the peony-filled weekend, including a private floral design workshop with Ariella Chezar, featured designer for the Field to Vase Dinner.

This will be an incredible opportunity to study in a small-group master class with one of the most inspiring and inventive floral artists of today. Ariella is a past guest of this podcast and I adore her aesthetic and ethos.

Beth personally invited Ariella to design the Field to Vase Dinner and host the workshop the day prior to the dinner. The Friday, July 28th, workshop details will be announced soon, so if you’re interested in learning more, sign up here for Ariella’s 2017 workshop announcements.

And on Sunday, July 30th, there will be a special post-dinner tour of the peony farms of Homer, Alaska. They include Alaska Perfect Peony, Chilly Root Peonies, Scenic Place Peonies, all members of, and Joslyn Peonies. I have visited all of these farms and I promise, you will be blow away by the beauty of the flowers, the breathtaking scenery, and the incredible talent of the farmers.

Seriously the most spectacular sight I've ever witnessed: Peony fields in the foreground. . . Glaciers in the distance!

Seriously the most spectacular sight I’ve ever witnessed: Peony fields in the foreground. . . Glaciers in the distance!

Close to perfection

I came home from Alaska with these luscious peonies – and it seemed as if no other flower could compete for room in the vase.

I’ve been reporting on Alaska Peonies for nearly five years and if you’re interested in some context and history, you may want to go back and listen to my prior episodes about those beautiful flowers and the people who grow them.

Episode 102 from August 2013, Peonies from America’s Last Frontier (Episode 102)

Episode 154 from August 2014,  Debra & Christina’s Alaska Peony Adventure (Episode 154)

You can also find a link to my story: America’s Last Flower Frontier in September 2012, prior to launching the Slow Flowers Podcast.


(c) Mary Grace Long photography

(c) Mary Grace Long photography

The Slow Flowers Podcast has been downloaded more than 152,500 times by listeners like you.

THANK YOU to each one of you for downloading, listening, commenting and sharing. It means so much.

If you value the content you receive each week, I invite you to show your thanks and support the Slow Flowers Podcast with a donation — the button can be found on our home page in the right column. Your contributions will help make it possible to transcribe future episodes of the Podcast.


2017SponsorBlockThank you to our lead sponsor for 2017: Certified American Grown Flowers. The Certified American-Grown program and label provide a guarantee for designers and consumers on the source of their flowers. Take pride in your flowers and buy with confidence, ask for Certified American Grown Flowers.  To learn more visit

We’re also grateful for support from Arctic Alaska Peonies, a cooperative of 50 family farms in the heart of Alaska providing high quality, American Grown peony flowers during the months of July and August. Visit them today at

And welcome to our newest sponsor, the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market, a farmer-owned cooperative committed to providing the very best the Pacific Northwest has to offer in cut flowers, foliage and plants. The Growers Market’s mission is to foster a vibrant marketplace that sustains local flower farms and provides top-quality products and service to the local floral industry. Find them at

More sponsor thanks goes to Syndicate Sales, an American manufacturer of vases and accessories for the professional florist. Look for the American Flag Icon to find Syndicate’s USA-made products and join the Syndicate Stars loyalty program at

A big bouquet of thanks goes to Longfield Gardens… providing home gardeners with high quality flower bulbs and perennials. Their online store offers plants for every region and every season, from tulips and daffodils to dahlias, caladiums and amaryllis. Visit them at

And finally, thank you Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. Formed in 1988, ASCFG was created to educate, unite, and support commercial cut flower growers. It mission is to help growers produce high-quality floral material, and to foster and promote the local availability of that product. Learn more at

I’m Debra Prinzing, host and producer of the Slow Flowers Podcast. Next week, you’re invited to join me in putting more American grown flowers on the table, one vase at a time. And If you like what you hear, please consider logging onto Itunes and posting a listener review.

The content and opinions expressed here are either mine alone or those of my guests alone, independent of any podcast sponsor or other person, company or organization.

The Slow Flowers Podcast is engineered and edited by Andrew Brenlan. Learn more about his work at

Music credits:
Manele; Flagger
by Blue Dot Sessions

America’s last flower frontier

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

Seriously the most spectacular sight I've ever witnessed: Peony fields in the foreground. . . Glaciers in the distance! Taken at Shelley Rainwater's GLACIER PEONIES in Homer, Alaska

I was lured to Alaska by peonies.

You probably didn’t think it was possible to use the words Peonies and Alaska in the same sentence, but guess what? There are acres and acres of peony fields, flourishing in June and July as far north as Fairbanks (Latitude 64). A little further south, peonies bloom in Homer until August and even early September. The cool thing about this chilly state is that an intrepid group of farmers is making a cut flower industry possible. These flower lovers have seized the opportunity and created a market for their lovely crops at the exact same time when a huge percentage of weddings takes place in the Lower 48.

Irene Repper's license plate, from Echo Lake Peonies

It’s a sweet spot you rarely see these days. After learning about Alaska’s emerging peony scene in 2011, I set my sights on a first-person trip. In late July, I spent one week there, logging more than 1,500 miles on Alaska’s highways and byways (and a few dirt roads to nowhere!), visiting 15 peony farms and meeting with dozens of wonderful people behind the blooms. I came home totally enthralled with the can-do mindset of flower farmers everywhere, especially in Alaska where no one expects you to grow anything except those oversize cabbages that win blue ribbons at the state fair.

Here’s why it’s so exciting:

Peonies are one of the top bridal flowers in the country, according to The Knot and other industry sources. Yet here in the lower 48 states, peonies peak in late May and early June. If you are a bride yearning to hold a bodacious bouquet of peonies on your special day in July, August or September. . . you are simply out of luck. The next chance for peonies comes in the fall, around October, when they bloom on Australia and New Zealand flower farms – and have to be shipped to you at outrageous expense and a serious carbon foot print.

Pat Holloway, left, and me - standing underneath the Alaska Pipeline in Fairbanks. Kinda scary, but I couldn't resist the photo!

So when the folks in Alaska, inspired by the research of Pat Holloway, a professor in the department of high altitude agriculture at U of A/Fairbanks and the Georgeson Botanic Garden, discovered they could grow peonies and harvest them in July and August, well, they literally created a brand-new seasonal flower crop. The marketplace has responded with a voracious appetite for the pale pink, coral, cream, wine and hot pink blooms. Brides and their floral designers are jumping for joy – and Alaska has its first agricultural export crop. Not fish. Not oil. But PEONIES!

This micro-flower story has taken place in less than a decade, gradually at first, as a few folks planted a few hundred peonies on an acre or two. Then, armed with Pat’s research and information gleaned from her workshops on growing and harvesting, more growers joined the movement. Like many perennials, peonies take at least three years to become productive, so it has only been in the last year or two that significant quantities of blooms have been cut and shipped out of state.

The numbers are exploding, though – and an informal statewide survey suggests that about 100,000 stems were shipped this summer. There are about 150 members of the young Alaska Peony Growers Association, with about one-third of them actively growing and marketing their flowers. The rest are just getting started, ordering peony roots by the thousands and patiently tending to the plants until they explode in beauty (and quantity) over the next several seasons.

If you are wondering “what’s so special?” about these flowers, I can only tell you that there’s some kind of fairy dust in the soil, air, sunlight and altitude of Alaska that adds up to robust, healthy and vivid flowers. Some have stems like you’ve never seen before – 30-inches long or more. The foliage is healthy and true green; the petal colors are intense when you want them to be and subtly quiet when that’s preferred (in other words, better than the catalog photos!). These plants are extraordinarily responsive to the 22-hours-of-sunshine in the land of the midnight sun – and the sunlight seems to be that secret ingredient for the flowers’ success.

Elle Stapleton, a summer intern, harvests 'Red Charm' peonies at Aurora Blooms in Homer

Shelley Rainwater, harvests peonies at her farm in Homer.











There are many ways that these luscious blooms make their way from North Pole, Palmer, Soldotna or Homer to the designers and florists in New York City or Los Angeles (and many places in between). Yes, there is a carbon footprint to shipping peonies on an airplane from Anchorage to the rest of the United States.

But as Pat Holloway pointed out to me:  “For years, I had been saying, Isn’t there something we can stick in a box and ship to someone on all those (empty) planes?” You see, when combined, the international airports in Anchorage and Fairbanks are ranked as the third-largest air cargo transport stop on the globe. The combination of superior cut flowers — available nowhere else on the planet for nearly 10 weeks — and the necessary transportation infrastructure to deliver those flowers to the world adds up to floral magic of a different sort.

The growers typically harvest to order, fulfilling online requests, phone calls from anxious DIY brides, faxes from desperate floral designers — all who have joined the peony gold rush. Alaska has what they need. The flowers are harvested in the cool mornings or late in the day, stored in buckets of water and placed inside coolers large or small. The packaging is thoughtfully done. Stems of peonies “in bud” are swathed in soft quilt batting and arranged carefully in long boxes where there’s space for an ice pack or two. Then off they go, sent overnight so the recipient can enjoy his or her flowers as quickly as 24 hours after they were cut.

Peonies packed at Midnight Sun Peonies in Soldotna - ready to be shipped.

Great labeling!












Peonies are pretty remarkable flowers. They can be “dry-stored” after having been cut when in bud (some growers call this the marshmallow stage; others, the cotton ball stage).

Pat’s research has evaluated the relationship between time stored at this stage and the vase life of the blooms once they’re placed in water. You can read some of her research here. One study found that “under optimum conditions, ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ peonies lasted up to 15 days in a vase, 8-9 days from bud break to full bloom, and an additional 5-6 days in full bloom. Chilling is the most important attribute to long vase life.”

Yes, there is an acknowledged carbon footprint associated with shipping Alaska’s peonies to other states. But the energy and expense to do so is significantly lower than the alternative (such as importing from New Zealand or Holland). And to me, here’s the bottom line: It’s exciting to support a new, viable domestic flower industry that’s meeting demand, filling a need, and bringing beauty to the rest of us.

When I was visiting Fairbanks, Pat hosted a barbecue for me to meet several peony farmers in the Fairbanks area. A few local officials came, as well, intrigued to learn about the economic development story under their noses. Later, Pat shared an email one of them had sent to his constituents:

“Two things make Alaska uniquely situated to become the single seasonal source for peonies. First, nowhere else but Alaska can farmers grow crops of peonies that bloom through the summer, especially for late summer weddings. Traditionally, there have been no peonies available for sale between July and September. Second, Anchorage provides critical shipping as the world’s largest handler of international air cargo. These two aspects give Alaska 100% exclusive access to this worldwide market. . . .

“This is just the beginning for growers in Alaska. There is a demand for tens of thousands of stems worldwide and we are in (an) excellent position to develop this outstanding and diversifying product.”

Beth Van Sandt, one of my generous hosts, from Scenic Place Peonies in Homer.

How Can You Find Alaska Peonies?

Peonies, a classic beauty, from Aurora Blooms

The Alaska Peony Growers Association has a one-stop web site in which you can connect with dozens of growers. Of course, the season is pretty much over, but it’s worth contacting the peony farms to get on their mailing list and ask about pre-ordering peonies for the 2013 season. These farmers are so happy to help you – so excited to know that their flowers are bringing floral beauty to the rest of the country. I encourage designers to make those important contacts now so that next year, when wedding season rolls around, you’ll have access to superior American-grown peonies during the busiest wedding months.